Published at: June 27, 2008, 1:49 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
It's a bit of a stretch, but the bullet-curving, dome-popping, morality-flouting shenanigans so kinetically depicted in WANTED could be charitably explained away as a metaphor for young male empowerment. By wantonly murdering complete strangers at the whim of a fate-weaving loom (not a metaphor, unfortunately), James McAvoy's timid working stiff, Wesley Gibson, is simply engaging in a very bloody form of self-actualization. He's seizing the day by squeezing the trigger. Pol Pot would approve. In fact, if Pol Pot were still with us, he'd probably have a new favorite movie.
Problem is, all that killing? It's not a metaphor; it's the goddamn text. More than wish fulfillment, it's a dipshit design for living pitched to all the disaffected bozos who spent their adolescence blowing up frogs and starting fight clubs. And it's oh so very well made that I fully expect a potential-deficient teenager to hit the slab with a bullet that "just... would... not... curve,... officer!" embedded in his Cro-Magnon skull before the year is out. So, please, if you've ever dreamed of killing all your problems away (or fervently believed in the prophesying power of your sweater drawer), do get in line posthaste for Timur Bekmambetov's WANTED.
Loosely based on Mark Millar's graphic novel of the same name, Bekmambetov and his writers (Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan) have jettisoned the comic's supervillain-as-protagonists hook in favor of a derivative, MATRIX-inspired narrative of self-discovery (which is a little like remaking YOJIMBO and crediting LAST MAN STANDING). In this telling, Wesley is a beat-down cubicle drone who pops anxiety medication like candy rather than confront his verbally abusive boss, his bitchy live-in girlfriend or his opportunistic best pal (who brazenly skips work to drill said girlfriend). But we forgive Wesley his schlubby demeanor because he owns up to it in a witty voiceover; after all, knowing you're a loser is the first step to, um, walking into a local drug store and getting saved by a disconcertingly hot Angelina Jolie from an unexpected assassination attempt. Beats getting bitten by a radioactive spider.
After an invigorating chase sequence/shootout, Jolie, whose character is cleverly nicknamed "The Fox", whisks young Wesley off to a textile plant, where he's introduced to the stentorian Sloan (Morgan Freeman). It's here Wesley learns that a) his long-lost, recently-bodied father was one of the world's greatest hitmen, b) papa belonged to a fraternity of skilled killers dubbed "The Fraternity", and c) he can shoot the wings off of flies if Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist Common holds a pistol to his head. This is a lot to digest, but rather than marvel at his heretofore unexploited trick shooting gifts, Wesley flees the plant for the emasculating comfort of his miserable home life because the hero must at first refuse the call to adventure.
Of course, when Wesley returns to his lousy day job, he gets all empowered and speaks the awful truth to his boss. On his way out the door, he busts his ergonomic keyboard across his best friend's mug. "Fuck these underachievers; I can kill for a living!" But it's a little more complicated than that; before Wesley can take up a pistol and gun down the wicked from a safe distance like a man, he must first endure a training regimen that involves getting beaten by a burly bastard called "The Repairman" (we never see him fix so much as a toaster oven), slashed to ribbons by "The Butcher", and cock-teased by "The Fox". The damage Wesley absorbs would kill a normal man several times over; lucky for him, "The Fraternity" has a restorative bath house that heals all gaping wounds and shattered bones (so long as they aren't immediately fatal).
Once Wesley learns to see "The Matrix", Sloan schools him in the history of "The Loom", which is... a loom that... weaves a code which is subsequently translated to reveal the name of the next evildoer to be dispatched? It's silly, but you go with it because Bekmambetov paces this film with a coherence and a confidence that was not at all present in NIGHT WATCH or DAY WATCH (which played like auditions for a studio directing gig in the first place). Wesley balks at his first assassination, wondering why he should trust a piece of fabric to tell him who needs executed. "Kill one, save a thousand," rationalizes "The Fox". And with that, Wesley's off on a righteous murder spree
Bekmambetov has a great deal of fun staging Wesley's gravity-defying hits, and they're occasionally pulled off with enough visual panache to override their ludicrous implausibility (though flipping one's car over a limousine's sunroof for a killshot is easily the most labored action set piece since Milla Jovovich ran down a building in RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE). But the film's casual amorality ceases to be fun the minute the filmmakers hit Wesley with a crisis of conscience (turns out Sloan withheld a few crucial details about his pops). It's one thing for Bekmambetov to rip off Kurt Wimmer's grand finale gunfight from EQUILIBRIUM (albeit with a much poorer sense of action geography), but quite another to mimic THE MATRIX's third act whilst advocating the murder of possibly innocent human beings to attain a purer sense of enlightenment. I know... you're not supposed to think too deeply on this nonsense; well, if that's the case, give me Michael Bay and BAD BOYS 2. This pseudo-intellectual theater of idiocy needs nipped in the squib.
Alas, WANTED is so seductive in its destructiveness that I can't imagine teenage boys rejecting it outright. The visual f/x (particularly the elaborate train wreck) are more seamless and inventive than anything in INDY 4, while Jolie gives a fascinatingly unhinged performance as a tatted-out object of desire harboring an unexplicated backstory that must be far more interesting than Wesley's (speaking of which, what's with the Inigo Montoya act when your father skipped town soon after you were born?). This is a surpassingly slick package of nihilism; it really is FIGHT CLUB bereft of that sinking feeling that someone's lampooning your white male angst.
In other words, WANTED is a massive step back for cinema and, I'd argue, society. It's mainstreamed cruelty seeking to connect with the Texas Tower Sniper in all of us. "Six weeks ago, I was just like you." Seriously, if you identify with Wesley Gibson, do the world a favor: get castrated.